Plastic versus Food Waste – Which is worse? by Susan Chen

At my house, half loaves of bread are almost always thrown out because they begin molding before we can finish them. Between the two of us, we simply don’t eat bread quickly enough. It is a strange paradox that exists in the United States: smaller loaves of bread are often more expensive per serving than larger loaves. Yet, we all want to save money, so we will often buy the larger loaf. But, if half the loaf is tossed, is money being saved? We’ve all had similar experiences with buying too much food and not being able to finish it all before it goes bad. One solution is that portion-sizes must be decreased to reduce food waste. Even that, though that raises another concern. If you’re in an area without bulk stores*, buying foods with smaller portion sizes will often result in more packaging waste. Sadly, the most common type of food packaging is plastic bags. This brings up a highly contentious debate – which is worse: plastic waste or food waste?

Susan Chen, graduate student at Virginia Tech is back with some thoughts on plastics and how they affect food waste. You may recall her earlier guest post on food waste. Rarely can an issue associated with food be isolated down to a single concept or idea. Food issues are complicated with many aspects to consider. Here are her thoughts on the matter. 

 The average American generates about 4.48 pounds of overall waste per day. Food waste accounts for 15.1% of total generated solid waste while plastic waste accounts for 13.1%. Besides the amount of waste, it is even more important to consider how our waste is treated. In the US, there are three common methods of treating waste: (a) land-filling is the most common, followed by (b) recycling and composting, then (c) combustion with energy recovery**. Surprisingly, only 3.4% of plastic waste and 2.3% of food waste is recycled or composted. For land-filling and combustion, the rates are just as dismal; roughly 16% of plastics and 22% of food waste are disposed of using these methods. Thus, there is about the same amount of plastic waste and food waste in our waste stream.

Not all plastics are created equal, which is the main reason why only 3.4% of all plastics are recycled. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of plastics cannot be recycled! This includes common single use food packaging plastics such as plastic bags, plastic film/saran wrap, coffee cups, and most plastic food packaging. The latter is actually more dependent on your local municipal recycling facility. Additionally, most recycling facilities don’t accept #5 plastics (commonly used for yogurt containers, food bottles, and bottle caps). In my town, I can only recycle #1 and #2 plastics. Hence, it is important to check with your local recycling facility to see what you can recycle.

 Plastic packaging is beneficial for keeping food safe and extending the shelf-life of foods. Plastic clamshells allow berries to maintain their shape and texture during transport. Wrapping certain fresh fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers and grapes, in plastic can extend shelf-life by 14 days. Meat packed in plastic bags or wraps can reduce the potential of cross-contamination. These play a beneficial role in reducing food waste at home; but, still generate non recyclable waste. 

Some solutions that have been identified for reducing packaging waste are alternatives like: reusable produce bags and food wraps, non-plastic reusable food storage containers, and mason jars. These items are becoming increasingly popular and can be purchased online or at most bulk food stores. Food companies are also exploring more sustainable methods to extend the shelf-life of foods, such as bio-based packaging. For example, Apeel Sciences has developed a plant-based “peel” that can slow down water loss and oxidation of fresh fruits and vegetables. Besides that, companies such as Alter Eco, Boss Foods, and Celestial are using compostable materials to package their food products. These items are beneficial to those who compost at home or live in an area with centralized or curbside composting. 

 Ultimately, all types of waste are detrimental to the environment and we should focus on reducing our overall waste generated. In addition, we must also consider the other resources necessary to produce food and plastics because those resources are also wasted when we throw food or plastic away. Additionally, food packaging comes in many other forms, such as paper, glass, and aluminum. While many biotechnology, environmental, and disruptive companies are exploring alternative and more sustainable methods for extending shelf-life and reducing waste, for the time being, we can do our best to prevent both food waste and plastic waste at home by planning our grocery trips, avoiding single use plastics, and using reusable bags and containers.

My reusable food wraps are shown below. They can be molded into different shapes to fit anything that you want to wrap. Here I have a bowl of produce and half of an avocado. I find that Bee’s Wrap works better than plastic wrap for bowls. I have a couple of plastic mixing bowls and I find that plastic wrap doesn’t stick well to the edges of the bowls. I wrapped this avocado two days ago. It looks a little brown and shriveled due to exposure to oxygen and moisture loss but it’s still perfectly edible. If the browning bothers you, then you can slice a thin layer off to reveal the avocado’s original green color. 

My reusable food wraps are from Bee’s Wrap. I bought them at my local bulk food store for about $14. They can also be found in different colors and sizes on Amazon. These wraps  are made out of beeswax, organic cotton, jojoba oil, and tree resin. They are easy to clean; just use mild dish soap and rinse them under cold water. The wraps mold to any shape at room temperature; therefore, you cannot use hot water to clean them because the beeswax will disintegrate. I’ve had mine for six months and they’re still in good quality. Some of the wraps are stained but that doesn’t bother me because I know they are clean when I wash them with soap. I do not recommend using these wraps for meat or seafood. I really like these wraps and I’ve started buying them as gifts for my friends. There are other beeswax based wraps on Amazon as well. I have not used them before.

Some examples of eco-friendly food storage include


*A bulk store is a store where smaller amounts of food can be purchased out of large, or bulk, containers. Common bulk items are grains, beans, and other dry goods. 

**Combustion with energy recovery is the conversion of waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel.

Susan Chen

Susan Chen is a PhD student in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech. Her research focus is on consumer food waste with an emphasis on food insecurity and food recovery. She has also collaborated in food waste projects at elementary schools and youth summer camps.She serves as a co-president of the Graduate Students for Communicating Science Club at Virginia Tech and has been involved with local science communication events. Last year, she won first place in their Nutshell Games, a science communication competition at Virginia Tech. See a video link to her talk.  

Next week: Assorted books on food for your reading pleasure


4 thoughts on “Plastic versus Food Waste – Which is worse? by Susan Chen

  1. But you didn’t answer the question!
    I googled, your article came up in the top ten, I was expecting numbers and an analysis of the environmental effects of both and a comparison.


    1. Rob: Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry that we did not respond sooner. Yes, we did not answer the question. We posed it as a rhetorical question to stimulate thinking. It was not written to provide definitive data on the topic. Activists are concerned about both food waste and plastic waste, but most news articles focus on plastic waste. The blog was set up to defend processed food from many of the criticisms that I, as a food scientist, don’t feel are warranted. The foods that are most likely to be wasted are fresh, whole foods and not processed foods. Fresh food is processed to prevent food waste by slowing decay and extending shelf life. Although some food writers praise food that rots, rotten food is wasted food. When a food is wasted, all inputs from field to market are also wasted. Plastics used in the food industry as packaging materials also help extend shelf life and prevent food waste. In the article Susan points out that there are alternatives to plastic wraps in the home to slow the rotting of fresh fruits and vegetables AND decrease the accumulation of single-use plastic in our recycle bins or trash cans.

      Susan: Overall, plastic may be more detrimental due to the production of plastics and plastic pollution in the environment, notably the ocean.
      However, I haven’t looked into the specifics of how plastics are produced, the number of resources needed to produce plastic, and how much plastics are produced annually.
      Additionally, plastics are recycled more than food, but I’m not sure of the proportion of plastics produced to plastics recycled.
      Improper disposal of food waste directly contributes to greenhouse gases, as food rotting in landfills generates methane because it is an organic compound. I’m not sure if this is the case for plastics.


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